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Turning the plastic tide: how upgraded chemicals regulations are piece and parcel of addressing the plastics challenge

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By Natacha Cingotti

Natacha Cingotti is the Senior Policy Officer for health and chemicals at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). She coordinates HEAL’s EU and national advocacy on a range of policies, including endocrine disrupting chemicals, REACH, pesticides, and biocides, in close cooperation with HEAL’s member organisations.


Many Europeans think of plastics only in their final form as consumer products, such as packaging for food or other items used in daily life. This often leads public debates on plastics to focus on the issues of environmental pollution.


Seldom are plastics approached from the perspective of what they really are, namely complex mixtures of chemicals, of which properties can cause concern for health. Approached from this angle, it becomes clear that the current challenge of plastics is inextricably linked to the problem of chemical safety. Indeed when harmful substances come into play in the production, processing and recycling of plastics, they represent an important barrier to the sustainable transition that the world urgently needs and Europe’s transition to a clean circular economy.


The chemicals in plastic put our health at risk


The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)’s “Turning the Plastic Tide” report describes health concerns over our exposure to the chemicals involved throughout the entire lifecycle of plastics. It unwraps the grave challenge that the chemicals constituents involved at every stage – monomers, additives – pose to achieve a clean and healthy circular economy and it also highlights the need for a broad definition of plastics that allows one to define the full scale of plastic contamination, including the all-pervasive problem of microplastics.


Plastics refer to a huge variety of synthetic chemical substances and almost all plastics derive from fossil fuels, especially natural gas. From the coatings and resins used in construction and industry, to the synthetic textiles making up our clothes or the rubber granules recycled from tyres which end up on football fields our children play on, plastics are literally everywhere.


Many of the largest and most hazardous chemical families – including heavy metals, flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols, and fluorinated compounds – are directly associated with its production. We ingest or inhale these substances daily, and many have serious impacts on our health.


For example, health concerns related to exposure to endocrine disruptors include reproductive disorders, development dysfunction, behavioural disorders, thyroid problems, low birth weight, diabetes and obesity, asthma, breast and prostate cancers.


Turning the plastic tide


A tidal wave of plastic is on the horizon. According to the plastics industry, the world’s plastic production reached 350 million tonnes in 2017 and current projections estimate that this number will double over the next 20 years.


Therefore taking on the plastics challenge in a way that puts health and the environment first to deliver on Europe’s Zero Pollution ambition requires upgrading European regulations on chemicals and articles in which they are used, encompassing the entire lifecycle of plastics.


The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, which is expected in the middle of October 2020, provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach this ambition and transform Europe’s chemical agenda in a way that benefits people’s health and incentivises investments in clean and safe technologies.


HEAL’s recommendations to EU regulators in addressing chemicals as part of the plastic issue, include the following:


1. Protect and be consistent

  -  No substance of very high concern (SVHC) should ever make its way into consumer products or food.

  -  It is high time to crack down on plastics additives.

  -  Rather than treating substances one by one, it is high time to regulate by groups. The reality of our exposure to mixtures, which is particularly relevant when addressing plastics, must be taken into account in chemicals assessments and regulations.

  -  Regulations on recycled materials should be the same as for virgin materials.

2. Anticipate and communicate

  -  Implement essential EU principles such as the precautionary principle in cases of scientific uncertainties and the polluter-pays principle. Do not let substances that are not proven safe enter the market.

  -  Avoid contaminating the future: do not allow recycling of plastics with hazardous additives and components.

  -  Safe substitution must be anticipated and put more focus on in regulatory processes in order to avoid regrettable replacements, when (groups of) substances are being restricted.

  -  Ensure full transparency on chemical content throughout the supply chain and towards consumers.



For more information about HEAL’s demands for a toxics-free future without plastics, please read ‘Turning the Plastic Tide – The chemicals in plastic that put our health at risk

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